Playing a quality schedule is more important now than ever before in the College Football Playoff era.
That means playing against and beating teams in the top 25 rankings, and the earlier the better in order to get a leg-up on the competition as the season wears on.
This year provides more than a few early games, both in and out of conference, that will give schools a shot at making that all-important statement to the committee.
Let’s take a look at each ranked team’s must-win early-season game this fall.
25. BYU: Once again, the Cougars play a tough schedule, but the game that could put this team in early College Football Playoff contention is right away in their Week 2 home opener against Big 12 champion Baylor. A good litmus test for BYU before they join that conference and looking ahead to games against Arkansas, Oregon, and Notre Dame.
24. Houston: A loss to Texas Tech in last season’s opener came before an 11-game win streak leading into the AAC title game. Tech is back on the Cougars’ schedule again, this time in Week 2. Win that and Houston should make a New Year’s bowl out of the Group of 5 with quarterback Clayton Tune back driving this offense.
23. Cincinnati: No waiting around for this team, which opens on the road against a ranked SEC West team in No. 19 Arkansas. A solid test for a team that loses a ton of playmakers that got it to a historic College Football Playoff berth a year ago.
22. Wake Forest: Suddenly a huge question mark over the Deacs’ otherwise loaded offense now that quarterback Sam Hartman is dealing with a medical condition. What does this offense look like? We’ll find out in Week 4 at home against Clemson.
21. Ole Miss: An offense that ranked top 10 in college football last fall makes core replacements at quarterback and running back while hoping to maintain its gains defensively, with a chance to make a good first impression on Oct. 1 against Kentucky before a brutal four-week stretch at LSU and Texas A&M and at home to Alabama.
20. Kentucky: It was a historic home win over Florida last year that helped propel the Wildcats to a 10-win season, and UK will look for a repeat early on, in Week 2 on the road against the Gators, themselves coming off an opener against Utah. A win here helps Kentucky get some quick momentum while it prepares for October.
19. Arkansas: It was an early home win over Texas that put the Hogs on the map last fall and it could be the opener at home against Cincinnati that does it again. Arkansas needs to make replacements defensively and at receiver, but will represent the SEC against the upstart Bearcats in a major Week 1 tilt.
18. Wisconsin: No debates here as the Badgers look ahead to a Week 4 trip to Ohio State, where this defense — which ranked No. 1 overall ahead of Georgia last year — lines up against the Buckeyes’ regiment of uber-talented skill players. A stiff test for the presumptive favorites in the Big Ten West.
17. Pittsburgh: It’s been more than a decade since we’ve seen the Backyard Brawl and this year’s matchup comes in Week 1 with major questions on both sides. For Pitt, how to replace Kenny Pickett and Jordan Addison. For West Virginia, how to get the most from transfer quarterback JT Daniels, now on his third school.
16. Miami: Mario Cristobal inherits a good enough roster led by a potential star at quarterback heading into a Week 3 road game at Texas A&M, himself a contender in the SEC after signing the highest-rated recruiting class in college football history and bringing on a very promising skill group.
15. Michigan State: It was an early non-conference road game that put Sparty on everyone’s radar last fall (at Miami) and it could be another one this season, a primetime Week 3 trip to Washington ahead of a crazy October — Ohio State, Wisconsin, and at Michigan — that will set the tone for this season.
14. USC: Don’t look ahead to the midseason road game at Utah just yet, not before the Trojans host Fresno State in a primetime game on Sept. 17. Jake Haener returns as one of the most singularly productive passers in college football and back with head coach Jeff Tedford to make this offense move, a test for USC’s unproven defense.
13. NC State: There’s a date at Clemson in Week 4, but not before getting through Texas Tech at home the week prior, working in first-year coach Joey McGuire and bringing in a pass offense that will test the Wolfpack’s secondary early.
12. Oklahoma State: Three winnable games for the Pokes — but watch for a home meeting with Arizona State — before starting October on the road at Baylor, who stopped OSU inches shy of the goal line on what would have been the game-winning TD for the Big 12 title .
11. Oregon: No easy cupcakes to open the season for first-year coach Dan Lanning, who goes against his old team in Georgia, whose merciless defense he coordinated to a College Football Playoff national title. Bo Nix transferred to Oregon from Auburn, so he’s well aware of what to expect from the Bulldogs, who will play with a major home field advantage in Atlanta.
10. Baylor: Before dealing with the Cowboys, the Big 12 champs have to take it on the road to BYU in Week 2 against a Cougars offense bringing back a lot of skill and athleticism to test the deep field in a preview of future conference matchups.
9. Oklahoma: Playing at Nebraska may not sound as difficult as it did in years past, but the Cornhuskers played a lot of close games last season: all nine of their losses came by single digits, including by 7 to OU, by 3 to Michigan, and by 9 to Ohio State, the latter two at home. Now the Huskers have a more aggressive offense and Casey Thompson — the Big 12’s leader in passing TDs with Texas last fall — behind center.
8. Michigan: Going to Iowa has a way of derailing your season: ask Penn State last year and Ohio State in 2017. Iowa has the defense to grind down most Big Ten opponents, but still lacks an offensive identity, scoring 30 points just four times a year ago , a good test for Michigan’s pass rush in their Oct. 1 meeting.
7. Utah: No waiting around for the Pac-12 champions, who travel across the country to SEC land and a date with Florida, which looks beatable as the program breaks in a new coach in Billy Napier with questions all over its roster, especially defensively going up against the Cam Rising-Tavion Thomas duo for the Utes.
6. Texas A&M: There’s a Week 2 date against App State, a program known to upset a Power 5 team on the road, but the real challenge for the Aggies here is against Miami the following week. The Canes bring on quarterback Tyler Van Dyke to put a scare into A&M’s very promising defense in a must-watch non-conference matchup.
5. Notre Dame: Not much of a honeymoon for Marcus Freeman, who coaches his first regular season game against his alma mater and the No. 2 teams in America: Ohio State, in the Horseshoe, in primetime. ND brings in arguably the best offensive line in college football, but its secondary will get tested immediately by the reigning No. 1 total offense in the country.
4. Clemson: Granted, the Tigers’ game at Wake on Sept. 24 may have gotten easier with news that Sam Hartman will be out for part of the season, but the Deacons still have enough skill to make this offense move in a key early ACC game before going home to NC State the week after.
3. Georgia: Just two of the Bulldogs’ opponents are ranked in the preseason, including the team’s Week 1 foe in Oregon, which has enough defensive firepower to line up against UGA’s skill threats and make this a game early. Win this one and Georgia should be undefeated going to Kentucky in late November.
2. Ohio State: The CFP selectors love quality wins, making the Buckeyes’ opener against Notre Dame a real chance to show off for the committee, and an important first-look at a defense that was costly in losses to Oregon and Michigan last fall, the improvement of which is the thing standing between OSU and the playoff.
1. Alabama: You could argue going to Texas would be the highlight of most any college football schedule, but the Longhorns are far from a proven product while the Tide is the near-consensus No. 1 team in the country. More intriguing games await the SEC champions, namely at Arkansas on Oct. 1 and at home to Texas A&M the next weekend.
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